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The only reason Matt Birk brought his aching knees and battered body to training camp for a 15th NFL season was to get to the Super Bowl.
The 36-year-old Birk was bothered by neck, elbow and knee injuries during his previous three years with the Baltimore Ravens, yet he never missed a start. During the offseason, the six-time Pro Bowl center underwent surgery to repair varicose veins in his legs.
Still, Birk knew the Ravens had a shot at a championship, and he wanted to be a part of it.
"At this stage in my career, losing takes a lot out of you," Birk said. "I wouldn't have come back if I didn't think there was a legitimate chance that I could help the team."
Birk, safety Ed Reed and guard Bobbie Williams head a list of longtime veterans who will be making their first Super Bowl appearance when the Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3.
"It means a lot for all the guys to have an opportunity to be a part of that," coach John Harbaugh said. "To be able to be involved with that as a leader is a huge thing. It makes you feel really good, and now you try to make the most of it."
Birk endured 11 fruitless years in Minnesota, reaching the playoffs five times without a conference title. Then, after joining the Ravens as a free agent in 2009, he was part of three more playoff runs that ended short of the Super Bowl.
Now, Birk is poised to be part of the NFL's biggest game.
"It's great, obviously," he said. "That's the goal. That's your dream. That's why you play."
Maybe Birk deserved it, after everything he went through over his first 14 years. But Birk exudes no such feeling of entitlement.
"Nobody deserves it more than anybody else. It doesn't matter how long you play," he said. "To be doing it with this team and just, I think, the closeness of this team and kind of the journey that we have been through my four years here every year getting close and getting close to finally break through, it's pretty special."
Reed, 34, has earned nine Pro Bowl invitations in 11 years with Baltimore and has long been recognized as one of the finest free safeties in the game. But he never got into the Super Bowl until now, and to make it even sweeter, his first appearance will be in his home state of Louisiana.
"It's been a long time coming, but it takes time," Reed said. "We've built up to this point."
Teammate Jacoby Jones, who grew up in New Orleans, will be making his Super Bowl debut in his sixth season. After the Ravens beat New England 28-13 in the AFC championship game, Reed prepared for a trip to familiar territory with Jones in tow.
"I really don't have any words for it," Reed said. "I rushed into the locker room to call my mom, because I know that my family has been going through some things, so I'm just thankful to be going home and for the whole of New Orleans to see some hometown guys. Jacoby, we talked about it. We haven't been there since (Hurricane) Katrina. We're just grateful."
The Ravens failed to win the AFC title game in 2008 and 2012 under Harbaugh before finally breaking through.
"For everything we've been through since coach Harbaugh got here, he had a vision of working us a certain way and taking us through something to build something and to create this moment," Reed said. "We believed it, but it was just something we had to go through as men and understand each other and understand the process together."
Williams, a backup on the line, played for Philadelphia and Cincinnati before getting into the Super Bowl in his 13th NFL season. Linebacker Terrell Suggs (10th season) and former Houston Texans stars Vonta Leach (ninth) and Bernard Pollard (seventh) signed as free agents with Baltimore for the chance to perform on the sport's grandest stage.
Quarterback Joe Flacco, who needed only five years to get it done, takes delight in seeing some of his older teammates finally heading to the Super Bowl.
"No doubt about it, I am excited for everybody that has been in the league as long as those guys have been," he said. "To have this opportunity is pretty cool."
Around the league
Patriots • The NFL is looking into quarterback Tom Brady's leg-up slide that hit Ravens safety Ed Reed in the AFC championship game. During the final minute of the first half, Brady slid at the end of an impromptu run. The quarterback's upraised leg hit the onrushing Reed, who limped away. Reed was not injured. Reed said Brady apologized to him this week by phone.
Cowboys • Owner Jerry Jones said Tuesday that coach Jason Garrett may give up play-calling duties on offense. Speaking to reporters at Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., Jones said offensive line coach Bill Callahan could inherit play-calling duties, but stopped short of saying a decision had been made. Garrett kept calling plays after he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach when Wade Phillips was fired during the 2010 season.
Jets • Coach Rex Ryan was uninjured in a three-car accident in eastern Pennsylvania on Jan. 14, the team has confirmed. Ryan was issued a warning and no citation, a team spokesman said Tuesday. No one in the other two cars was injured in the accident that occurred in Bethlehem, Pa., located about 45 minutes from the team's facility in Florham Park, N.J.
Broncos • Two masked men robbed the suburban Denver home of New England Patriots defensive back Derrick Martin while he was playing in the AFC championship game. Aurora police spokesman Frank Fania told The Denver Post that the robbers forced their way into Martin's home Sunday night when there was at least one adult and several children there. He says they took numerous items, but no one was hurt.
Martin attended Denver's Thomas Jefferson High School and played football at the University of Wyoming.
The NFL is hoping to decide the fate of the Pro Bowl by the time it releases next season's schedule in April. And the fate of the league's all-star game will largely depend on how much effort this year's participants put into Sunday's game in Honolulu.
"Our hope is that the players will give the same effort and energy that allowed them to become roster members of this Pro Bowl," NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson said Tuesday.
Super Bowl XLVII
P 49ers vs. Ravens at New Orleans, Feb. 3, 4 p.m.
TV • Ch. 2